Sense of Place: What is it and What Does it Mean?

What is it about a place that draws us out of our creature comforts, out from our homes to explore in mild or sometimes obscene discomfort, just simply to discover the place? Why should we feel so inclined?

Anyone who has travelled beyond the edges of their comfort zone and stumbled across a herd of elk grazing in a mountain glade or discovered a salmon fishing hole in a river dozens of miles up veritably unused trails knows the answer to those questions. Pressing on through hordes of mosquitoes, blackflies, and noseeums, to discover the wonders of the natural world, unrefined and unadulterated, because we know deep inside that the extent of the beauty is oft reflected in the amount of challenge that we are willing to endure to discover it, be it mental, physical, or environmental (weather or nuisance bugs).

A quote from Wendell Berry comes to mind, “You can’t know who you are until you know where you are.”

To find the truest beauty in a place is to become a mirror of that place thus discovering the truest beauty in yourself, for a place may only be as beautiful as you perceive it to be in your own mind. Attitude and perception allow us to create the world anew as we experience it, so ultimately our value of a place requires us to decide whether we want to discover a beautiful and new world teeming with possibilities; or a dim, dank world filled with difficulty that will infect our minds in exile and extinction. Truly extinction is our future, much sooner than need be, if we presently fail to reconnect with our environment. As written by Robert Michael Pyle, “What happens to a species that loses touch with its habitat?” It inevitably leads to “the extinction of experience”. Let’s make our experience a positive one that enables us to interact with our environment.

To truly see a place for its deeper value, feeling the bite of the flies, gnats, and mosquitoes; the exhaustion of pressing forth when you think you have no energy remaining; the heat of the sun evaporating perspiration from your body will root you in the experience. Feeling the discomforts and dangers that inhabit a place will settle your mind in the present moment. As a late sun wanes into twilight hours, feel the icy fingers of the breeze grip you, causing you to shudder, shiver, teeth to chatter, and rendering your fingers difficult to use, the memory of the place will etch itself into your memory. As Richard Louv wrote, “The pleasure of being alive is brought into sharper focus when you need to pay attention to staying alive” (The Nature Principle, 2012).

Developing a sense of place can mean experiencing and exploring it, caring for and protecting it, or simply researching and learning about it. All are aspects that develop a refined sense of place and each aspect adds to the journey of developing your personal sense of connection to a place and its inhabitants. A study done in Rochester, New York, coauthored by Andrew Przybylski suggested that people are connected to their authentic selves through nature. This connection to our authentic self leads people to nurture closer relationships with others and is believed to stem from our evolution in hunter-gatherer societies that required us to live mutually and work together in natural environments for survival.

Now let’s consider the words themselves:

As a verb the word sense has synonyms of discern, identify, and recognize. While as a noun it is synonymous with perception, awareness, and recognition.

Place, as a noun, is synonymous with location, region, setting, space, and locale, while synonyms for place as a verb range to include position, lay, plant, situate, leave, house with, allocate to, and appoint to.

Is the phrase Sense of Place thus synonymous with Perception of housing with? Identify with region/locale? Recognition of position? Awareness of being planted? What visions do you get from those phrases?

It would be insensible to say that all combinations of synonymous word pairings for the noun and verb forms of sense and place would be equivalent, or relevant for that matter. Although they do indeed raise my eyebrows (which are quite active and raise-able, I might add) and make me think about the implications in the words themselves.

You might being asking, “Paul, what is a sense of place to you?”  To me, it is a sense of rootedness. A sense of connectedness. It causes me to think of a single mushroom. It is not a part of a tree, but an integrated mycelial web intricately laced throughout the forest floor connects that mushroom to many plants and trees. Through this web, many of those plants live in a symbiotic relationship, helping one another in various ways to gather what is needed. Are we not connected to our surroundings in a similar manner? Perhaps our connection is not a physical one, such as roots of a plant or mycelial web. Perhaps a spiritual or thought-web, connects us to our surroundings through our contemplation of the place. This theory would support the sense of intuition. If we do indeed create the world anew in our own mind and with our own perceptions and attitudes, as mentioned above, then might it also be true that we do in fact hold influence upon our very environment through the value we place on it and the time we spend with it? Perhaps we are seeking to save the world from harm, but instead it is saving us.

Looping back from thought-webs and spirituality to the mushroom and mycelium, the mushroom is in fact the fruit of the mycelium, which is the larger organism. Might we not also be a fruit of our ecosystem? With our thought-webs being the larger organism that we, as a fruiting body (like the mushroom), may simply be a beautiful and bountiful product of? Perhaps in this way we are all interconnected with one another as well as our environment. I do not claim to know much about these topics, but considering that I know even a scant trace enables me to pontificate these possibilities upon the connection of the human ‘being’ and it’s interconnectedness with its environment. It’s ‘place’. ‘Being’ implies we are existent, present, and that we have nature, spirit, or essence.

Bringing this full circle now. A sense of place. Place, the value of it and our ability to place/set ourselves within our environment. Here we are. We have arrived. Let us be here together in spirit, at least, knowing that we can cultivate ourselves as the positive seeds of a thought-web that interconnects us in a symbiotic ecosystem within our environment. We cannot live without our environment. All resources come from it in some manner, so it is truly imperative for each of us that uses any ‘thing’ in our life to cultivate an essence of presence within our greater environmental setting and become aware of the implications of our actions and inactions. Be aware of how each ‘thing’ is made, how it is disposed of, if it is even necessary.

To say it simply, a sense of place is truly the awareness of your setting and how you are connected to it.

Cultivate in yourself the awareness of your surroundings and become a part of the place.

Cheers,

Paul Twedt

P.s. It’s spring, get outside.

References:

Louv, Richard. (2012). The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age. North Carolina: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Pyle, Robert Michael. (2011). The Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press.

Weinstein, N., Przybylski, A., & Ryan, R. “Can Nature Make us More Caring? Effects of Immersion in Nature on Intrinsic Aspirations and Generosity.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 35, no. 10 (2009): 1315 – 29.

Further Reading:

Stegner, Wallace. (1992). The Sense of Place. Random House, Inc. Retrieved from: http://www.pugetsound.edu/files/resources/7040_Stegner,%20Wallace%20%20Sense%20of%20Place.pdf.

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